Your Comprehensive Guide to Entry-Level Accounting Jobs

By Robert Half December 6, 2019 at 8:15am

Are you looking for an entry-level accounting job? This field offers growth, stability, great pay and even excitement. Yes, accounting can be exciting — it’s a diverse field with many career paths, and entry-level roles can range from data entry and bookkeeping to financial analysis and forensics.

A degree in accounting or finance is generally a prerequisite, but work experience during college is also essential, according to a survey by Accountemps. In that research, more than 60% of CFOs polled said it’s very important for new graduates to have worked in a related position while studying.

But before you start applying for entry-level accounting jobs, consider whether public or private accounting is a better fit for you. Public accounting is a promising choice for graduates who love the variety of working with many clients. Private accounting — working in-house for a single company — lets you go deep into a specific industry.

Or if you’re interested in solving financial mysteries, you might head into banking or law enforcement to pursue a career in auditing or forensic accounting.

Employment is projected to be strong for accountants and auditors for at least the next several years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But what are the education and certification requirements for entry-level accounting jobs? What about the average salaries and the opportunities available in various sectors?

Education and certifications

Your level of education typically determines what entry-level accounting jobs you’re most likely to land. For example, positions as a bookkeeper or accounting clerk may require just a high school diploma or an associate degree. But you’ll find more opportunities if you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in accounting, finance or business.

If you’d like to pursue a career as a certified public accountant (CPA), which opens up even more doors, you need a bachelor’s degree with some graduate-level work, perhaps an MBA, and then you must pass a rigorous four-part exam. This certification is essential if you want to work in public accounting: Anyone filing a report with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is required by law to be a CPA.

Opportunities in public accounting

The field of public accounting is dominated by the so-called Big Four firms — Deloitte, PwC, EY and KPMG — and supported by many local and regional firms. Public accountants provide auditing, tax, forensic accounting, and advisory and consulting services for clients all around the world.

There’s high demand for top talent in public accounting, and the Big Four all offer student internship and entry-level programs — though they’re extremely competitive. In-demand specialties within public accounting include tax preparation and planning, auditing services, and financial planning.

Public accounting firms offer competitive pay and benefits and an opportunity to work with prestigious clients. And don’t forget support for continuing education and earning your CPA certification.

And with demand so high, entry-level professionals can command incentives they wouldn’t have been offered just a few years ago, including annual bonuses and accelerated tracks to advancement.

But know this going in: The work can be stressful and unpredictable, with long hours and frequent travel. Public accounting firms are taking steps to improve work-life balance for their employees, but the hours can still be grueling.

Opportunities in the private sector

As opposed to public accounting, where you work with many clients, private accounting embeds you in one organization, getting to know the company and its industry inside and out.

Entry-level accounting jobs are available at every kind of organization, from family-owned businesses to Fortune 500® firms — though jobs with top companies are understandably competitive. You don’t need to be a CPA to work at a private business, but companies often pay higher salaries for accountants with such qualifications.

Accountants can take on a variety of roles in the private sector. Corporate accountants might be involved in everything from helping negotiate real estate transactions to managing federal and state tax issues and interacting with bankers.

In-demand positions within private accounting include staff and senior accountants, financial analysts. Payroll professionals are also highly sought, as firms must comply with new regulations and complete new system implementations.

These jobs offer stability but may also come with long hours and stressful demands. It’s also worth noting that job stability is closely tied to a company's financial health.

Opportunities in financial services

Hiring is ramping up across the financial services industry, for roles including entry-level financial analysts and personal financial advisors.

Commercial banking offers another path for finance professionals who work in jobs ranging from bank tellers and retail loan officers to commercial credit analysts and commercial bankers.

In investment banking, in-demand specialties include private equity accounting, hedge fund accounting, fund administration, clearing and settlement operations, asset management, and collateral and derivatives.

Opportunities in healthcare, nonprofits and government

Healthcare is a dynamic area for accounting, finance and revenue cycle positions. You may take an entry-level role as a medical billing professional and work your way up to become a supervisor, manager, director and vice president of revenue cycle.

There’s also a growing demand for financial counselors who assist patients with cost and payment options, according to the 2020 Robert Half Salary Guide for Accounting and Finance Professionals.

Another option is to seek work in the nonprofit sector, which offers the opportunity to combine altruism with your love of numbers. Accountants for nonprofits are in charge of handling funds including contributions, membership dues and fundraising activities and ensuring that the organization follows the rules separating nonprofits from for-profit entities.

Nonprofit jobs are better suited for individuals who place a higher premium on being fulfilled by the work itself — rather than the pay — as the jobs typically don’t come with salaries as high as those with for-profit companies.

Entry-level accounting jobs are also available in government, at the federal, state and local levels. Hiring in the regulatory arena, in particular, has been steady at agencies such as the IRS, FBI, SEC and Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB). USA Jobs also reports a critical need for auditors in many federal government agencies.

Government accounting jobs are ideal for someone interested in public service who’s analytical and has high ethical standards. Government employers offer the opportunity to do challenging, meaningful work and are known for offering job stability, excellent benefits and retirement plans that often include pensions.

Although the pay is competitive, there's not as much potential for salary growth as there is in public accounting or in the private sector, and the government office culture can be rigid.

Average salaries for entry-level accounting jobs

Salaries for accounting positions are rising, with sign-on bonuses and other incentives becoming increasingly common. In a tight job market, companies know they need to offer competitive compensation to land top candidates.

Many accounting and finance job seekers receive multiple offers and show more confidence in salary negotiations, armed with knowledge of current compensation trends. So before you start negotiations, it’s essential to know the going rates for entry-level accounting jobs — and be aware of the differences between public and private salaries, as well as local variances.

For example, the midpoint starting salary for a private tax accountant with less than one year of experience is $54,250. For a public accountant specializing in tax services with less than one year of experience, it’s $48,750. The midpoint for a tax accountant working in the financial services sector is $70,000.

A general accountant at a private corporation with one to three years’ experience is looking at a midpoint starting salary of $64,250. At a public accounting firm, it’s $59,500, and in financial services it’s $64,250. You can find more details and variances for your area in the Salary Guide and our Salary Calculator.

How technology is changing accounting

Technology is changing how people work in numerous fields, accounting included. As such, the rise of automation, artificial intelligence and cloud computing is eliminating some data-entry duties that were once staples of entry-level accounting jobs.

But the demand for accountants isn’t at all declining. Right now, the accountant unemployment rate is at near-record lows, with jobless rates for auditors, financial managers, billing clerks, financial analysts and bookkeepers trending well below the national average.

The changes brought about by new tech just make accounting professionals with strong soft skills even more valuable. Hiring managers are on the lookout for candidates who are good with critical thinking, communication, business acumen and problem-solving.

Finding entry-level accounting jobs

Whichever accounting path you choose, you can count on creating a career that grows with you. The biggest challenge might be deciding among the many opportunities available to you.

To stand out from the crowd, make sure your resume showcases your soft skills, such as communication and teamwork, in addition to your accounting skills. Highlight your previous work experience — through internships or part-time jobs, for example — and any leadership roles you’ve held in campus organizations.

And when seeking an entry-level accounting job, it’s a huge benefit to have a strong support system and someone who can answer any questions you have. The most effective way to gain this support and knowledge — and find your next big opportunity — is to enlist help from a recruiting firm that specializes in accounting and finance. A recruiter who understands what employers want can help you land the best position for you.

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